“A Voice To Make Tangible My Obsession”: Affective Language & Corporeal Chatter (Nervous 'Talk' About the Body)
by Jen Stockdale
poetry is an instant…where a miracle occurs and all of one’s knowledge, experiences, memories, etc. are obliterated into awe –Jenny Boully, The Body
In the Introduction to Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics, Lara Glenum discusses the relationship between the corporeal and linguistic as conceptualized by many of the women in this 2010 anthology. Glenum writes, “Human bodies and human language (and thus identity) are not closed, discrete systems. They are grotesque bodies/systems—never finished, ever-morphing, unstable, and porous. The body, as nexus of language and identity, is a strange borderland, the site of erratic and highly specific (and language-mediated) desires” (Glenum and Greenberg 17). While Glenum’s conceptualization defines the corporeal as setting the parameters of a desiring subject, her sense of the body as this “strange borderland” relies on dynamic shifting, switching, dripping, eroding, corroding, leaking, etc. (if this is a “borderland” its (linguistic-)spatiality is riddled with stalactites, trapdoors, tectonic shifts, ghost towns, etc.) on site. Similarly, in Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Elizabeth Grosz asserts that “bodies are not inert.” Rather, Grosz suggests, “They generate what is new, surprising, unpredictable.” She continues, “Human bodies, indeed, all animate bodies, stretch and extend the notion of physicality that dominates physical sciences, for animate bodies are necessarily different from objects; they are materialities that are uncontainable in physicalist terms alone. If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency” (xi). Grosz argues that the corporeal is crucial to subjectivity—and a “refiguring” of corporeality might allow, then, for an understanding that replaces the mind/body (or conscious/unconscious) dichotomy. The author explains her project in Volatile Bodies as an “attempt to invert the primacy of psychical interiority by demonstrating its necessary dependence on a corporeal exteriority.” Grosz maintains that the body has “all the explanatory power” of the mind; “all the effects of depth and interiority can be explained in terms of the inscriptions and transformations of the subject’s corporeal surface” (xi).
If we subscribe to the notion of “psychical corporeality” for which Grosz is arguing—as well as the Gurlesque sense of this “nexus of language and identity” as an open system, the body (and poem-body) can be figured as a frantic site of discovery and curiosity rather than the realm of an authoritative “I.” Indeed, as Denise Riley suggests in Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect, “The deepest intimacy joins the supposedly linguistic to the supposedly psychic realms… Instead of this distinction, an idea of affective words as they indwell might be more useful—and this is a broadly linguistic conception not contrasted to, or opposed to the psychic” (10). Language is, Riley says, always “a speaking thing” (7). Texts that take this into account—and thus foreground their anxieties and energies, allow for this kind of linguistic-corporeal configuration. “Neither my master nor my instrument, [language] is amiably indifferent to me,” Riley states, quick to reminds us that “this isn’t a vacant stance.” Rather, she argues, “It’s…that coincidence of a vacant formula (as in ‘I love you’) with the absolute plentitude of the speaker’s emotion, which is sublime” (7). “Talking” texts such as Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis, Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat, and Alice Notley’s Close to me & closer (The Language of Heaven)—in which the inextricable nature of the corporeal and the linguistic (as psychic) necessarily disrupt the traditional binaries of writing/speaking (or reading/writing), remembering/forgetting, and terror/awe—allow for sublimity by replacing the conventional notion of a poetic voice with that of (whole-hearted/throated) affect—language bearing “impersonality” and emotionality at once (Riley 7).
In her Introduction to Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis, Maxine Chernoff describes the book’s titleas pertaining to the way a person “arrives at knowledge.” Chernoff discusses the philosophical, medical, and spiritual contexts for ‘anamnesis’: “In the Platonic sense, it suggests the recollection of ideas which the soul knew in a previous life. In the clinical sense, it is the full medical history told by the patient; in the Christian sense, it is the Eucharistic prayer; and in immunology, it is a strong immune response.” Indeed, Ives’s text evokes all of these meanings and contexts methodically and simultaneously, as her project presents not just a logic unfolding but an imminent act which situates her speaker (and us) somewhere in the liminal realm—or, perhaps more aptly, calls attention to artifice involved in any creative act—and the affect of language itself. We must cope, then, with this textual hemorrhaging.
Ives’s pieces contract on the page, enacting their own creation and obliteration with the speaker’s commands, “Write…” and “Cross this out.” In insisting on this process, Ives applies the pressure of antiabsorption; we experience the text in its (or as) intimate attempts to make sense of trauma, the speaker’s instructions calling forth undulations in the surface of a kind of psychical corporeality as threads of narrative signal and cancel (each other) out like synapses. This is the effect of nervousness, anxiety. “Write, ‘You are nervous but that is not really like worrying’,” commands the speaker in one of Ives’s untitled (and thus perhaps connected) pieces, which fire and halt—like the brain’s attempts to organize jolting or painful experiences. She continues, “Cross this out/ You are looking at a dead end/ Write, ‘But simply cross this out’/ Here we perceive what/ One very bright eye opening/ Cross this out/ You keep on going a machine” (27). This mechanistic mode of coping/production indicates that, as a linguistic (psychical)-corporeal unit, Ives’s speaker is involved in a system of limited space; she processes her experiences—and discards the bulk of them, left only with dense sensory flashes of memories (or language bearing emotion). For example, she writes, “I am ten years old and my father’s face turns inside its/ hat and collar/ Across a ski slope/ The trees are black in snow/ It muffles everything/ Cross this out/ Write, ‘I jumped off a wall when I was six’/ Write, ‘I fell on the blade of an ice skate’/ Cross this out/ I was nine” (51). These lines appear, in this composition, as discrete units. And yet, it is important to note, they never disappear from the page. Ives’s text is crowded with linguistic ghosts in this space of utterance. Denise Riley writes, “There are ghosts of the word which always haunt any present moment of enunciation, rendering that present already murmurous and thickly populated.” She continues:
Perhaps ‘the psyche’ is recalled voices as spirits manifesting themselves in the clothed flesh of words…This is in effect a verbal form of post-traumatic stress disorder, marked by unstoppable flashbacks. Here anamnesia, unforgetting, is a linguistic curse of a disability (Riley 14).
In this respect, Ives’s text becomes a kind of collection—an archive of these impulses and a medium through which (im)personality is channeled or generated by the constant shifting it demands in this unforgetting.
Like Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis, Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat is a text concerned with transcending the temporal limitations of experience and narrative by foregrounding issues of process and becoming a kind of artifact (just as Ives’s text is a collection of impulses to create and obliterate or a linguistic unforgetting, the latter is a catalogue of neuroses), as well as a medium through which a voice is generated/maintained—or affect is established. Kunin’s text relies on a process which produces an effect of curation. The poet explains his project as a “translation” of Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and Maeterlinck’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” which he accomplishes through the use of a “binary-hand alphabet,” a system of transcribing particular words through/with the tapping of his fingers. In a Jacket interview with Ben Lerner, Kunin says that he attempts to “invert” Pound’s task with “Mauberley,” using the formal elements of Pound’s text as a model (Lerner asserts that the affects of the original are preserved, which reveals them to be ‘largely formal effects”) (Kunin ix-x, Jacket 4, 2)). Kunin uses Maeterlink’s play as an emotional model—and in articulating the “problem of [the] translation”: “subjection to sensations for which [Golaud] has no language” (Kunin xi).
These texts, then, provide something to curate or assemble. They also provide critical patterns (prosody) for his curation—and a means of channeling his nervous energy (a means involving inscription upon/through the body’s surface, Grosz’s psychical corporeality) as Kunin attempts to “fully inhabit his vocabulary” (which, as a system derived from his hand- alphabet, makes for some strange translations: “frankness as never before,/ disillusions as never told in the old days/ hysterias, trench confessions,/ laughter out of dead bellies” in Pound becomes, in Kunin’s text, “at last a word with the machine/ I’ll have a word for every fact/ (but you must remember all of it)/ then, at last, the laughter of a moron” (7)). In his Jacket interview, Kunin addresses the “laughter” of this “moron” as he considers the fact that, as a shy person, he doesn’t “have a lot of control” over his speaking voice (11-14). He says that he often relies on “formulas” to participate in conversations. “Speech,” he says, “usually appears to be improvised…when speech is required, most people seem to be able to “produce it spontaneously” (15). Denise Riley discusses this kind of anxiety in relation to articulation. She writes:
Exactly how what’s spoken will be received is incalculable, while it gives rise to feverish calculations in its speaker’s head…The meaning of what’s being said bleeds into its unique deployment and the receptivity of the audience, and it becomes them. So does the very act of speaking itself. Some kinds of articulation ineluctably pull attention to themselves; so with the linguistic embarrassment of trying a foreign language in which you’re weak, you have to bear being heard, initially, as an odd thing; the same with owning an unusual voice, a striking regional accent, a lisp, or a stutter… But, distressing extremes apart, the ordinary delivering of words is often fraught with the real risk, or the speaker’s worried anticipation, that the very act of articulation will at once dominate what’s said” (72).
Indeed, in “You Won’t Remember This,” the speaker says, “By my habits you will know me,/ By the habits I have on” —and in “A Word With You,” “Remember that your talking habits/ Change the world, and change who you are”—the way you say things changes your perception and personality (5, 9). In XI on page 17, Kunin says, “I am my talking habits,/ So I am a cast of mind;”—“I” is performed here, like a cast performs, in an act of what Denise Riley might call the “ventriloquy of inner speech” (“If inner speech can sing, it can also tirelessly whisper, mutter, contemplate under its breath to itself, and obsessively reproach itself,” she writes, “It can angrily fondle those names it had once been called” (Riley 6, 13). Through the performance(s), then, Kunin creates/catalogues a kind of personality (sometimes debased, as is the case with “Asshole, Dickhead, Shit-for-brains”) developed/displayed through habits—the ultimate impersonality accomplished through the reiteration (/interpellation) of malevolent language, which has, according to Denise Riley, a “vampiric” effect on us (Riley 9-10).
In “No Word, No Sign,” the speaker says, “You are the body whose voice// I seem to hear saying: ‘You must change/ your habits’ (if you change your habits what’s left/of you? How will you know who you are? For/ you’re nothing if you change your way of seeing// and thinking: where the word ‘you’ appears I/seem to mean ‘myself’” (59-60). While “you wish for there to be somebody/who will hear my voice,” “you are my wish for/there to be another body”; as a “choice” (“you are my choice”), “you” are a “thing”—objectified (by emotion)—“But I am nothing” (60). Lerner describes this “I”/”you” shifting in his interview with Kunin as “a refusal of the attempt to go outside of oneself, the internalization of the split of persona” (5). Even as it is internalized, though, this “split persona” insists on talking; the “age” and the “machine” demand a voice—and thus produce an affective language.
Kunin traces the origin of this internalized binary hand-alphabet to a friend’s desire to share a secret in “Knowledge Blobs” (109). But it is only when the inventor shares this secret language with another friend that his interest in piqued; he begins seeing the potential for (or suspecting the occurrence of) secret exchanges everywhere: “Am I obsessed with your hands” (111). The system subsumes all his other nervous habits—the “the hand-alphabet is conceived of as a medium of communication that merely resembles a nervous habit, and later achieves its destiny by becoming a nervous habit” (118). He has manipulated the gestures so that these are indecipherable to others; yet he is excluded from the code (thought seems to go right to the hand). If, as Kunin suggests, all habits “have a destructive element,” then, The Sore Throat is a process which allows the author to combat this element by containing (and animating) his nervousness in this linguistic curation, where talk is generative.
Alice Notley discusses the issue of generating/generative voice in her essay, “American Poetic Music at the Moment.” In the essay, Notley considers the strange disembodied quality of voice—as well as the role of perception/recognition in determining a poet’s voice (the poet’s inevitable failure to fully inhabit a voice). She writes:
As one goes through time one acquires a certain definition, a shape in terms of society; a person, because of certain choices and circumstances, seems to become X. But [it] is always what unfolds in time, something that can unfold, which is more definite and mysterious than its trappings. That’s the voice. As a poet, I learn how to put it in lines, in sentences, in “feet,” in the guise of human voices; but it remains essential and unstable, panicking slightly at the next step it takes, above all itself…I’m not my poetic voice, rather I myself can only write it. I have some control over its many characteristics, its accomplishments, its range, its disguises; but it always finally eludes my control because… it’s autonomous. It doesn’t consist of parts and characteristics—and so the familiar circumstance that no one poem is ever what one intended or pictured. And one can’t really produce another poet’s line, be like the poet one imitates…I still don’t know what my sound is. You identify me, I don’t exactly” (146).
Here Notley suggests a medium-like quality of voice (as the speaker can never fully step outside him/herself and speaking necessitates interpellation), one that clearly informs her project in Close to me & closer (The Language of Heaven), a text comprising a dialogue between a daughter and her dead father. In the preface to this book, Notley asserts that her long-deceased father had begun speaking to her in her dreams. To allow her father to speak through her—to fully access the intonation, inflection, and cadence of his speech, Notley reports that she had to detach herself from her “rational” mind—a filter which limited her ability to channel/host this voice.
In Close to me, the father and daughter grapple with this dilemma: the struggle of
articulation and presence in (and through) talk(ing)—voice achieved through a kind of magic rather than the constraints of logic/reason. The father explains, “A dream is…real Because… you are conscious…when you dream…You are yourself in a…dream. You’re conscious, inside of being unconscious! That’s why, I tell you things, in dreams. But when you write things…you also go away to…a place like dreaming.” Here Notley (through the voice of the father, who has access to the knowledge of Heaven), argues for a “better poetry,” one which is figured in terms of emotion and spatiality rather than chronology and reason. She writes, ““I think a better poetry…comes if you…step into, a better light. It’s a step. Feel something…from here, go into you. Light. Feel it…in your head, I guess, then flow into…your arms, & fill up… the words. That’s the… what a poem, probably…has always been…Language is magic… It isn’t logical…” Poetry, for Notley, is a means of holding “the…depths…of heaven….in one still place. The only way on earth… we might say what we know…in the all-at-once way…that we know it…” As “the language of Heaven,” poetry is ethereal but also a form of communion/communication—the opening of a channel, a means of exchanging energy and/or knowledge (outside the bounds of our earthly conceptualizations).
As an almost sacramental process which, for Notley, occurs in the liminal space between the unconscious/conscious, poetry—or the intimate “talk” it entails in Close to me—becomes, in a way, a mode of processing. Unlike the traditional situation of the lyric “I” as involved in articulating a kind of logic, though, Notley’s speaker locates herself with an investment in the unfolding of thought in a different realm (akin, perhaps to Kunin’s curation with his personal mythology/vocabulary, or Ives’s articulation of creative/destructive commands). Hers is not a logic firmly rooted in the mind. Rather, as Heaven and poetry are conceived as spatial realms (and talk connects these—or flows in between and through these Gurlesque-ish open systems), Notley’s “logic” seems more like the “psychical corporeality” advocated by Elizabeth Grosz (as Notley’s speaker transcribes the voice which is almost inscribed upon her body—as this “talk” is familial). The father in Close to me attempts to explain the strange (il)logic of Heaven:
It’s not with…we don’t think in words—or pictures—necessarily. Not the way you’re, translating me on your page. Translating me into you, which…but sounding like me since, you’re my daughter. But thinking…is a fluid here—a…connection—or light. If you thought like that, why the essence could be as much between…between you, as what you are. Not such a struggle, trying to be something…especially something that doesn’t…really work. Instead you can…float between. Around. We do. We are…that.
The freedom of Heaven means fluidity, mobility, and the potential for connection in its language. Thus, according to Notley, poetry is ethereal but not necessarily entirely ephemeral—though it’s “magic” does work against time, as time doesn’t exist as the same kind of worldly constraint in Heaven. As an embrace of magic, poetry becomes a means of expressing (or perhaps even enacting) wonder and awe—maintaining a sense of mystery and curiosity, which is crucial to the intimacy and urgency of this talk. The father in Close to me advises his daughter,
…you have to find your measure….by magic, or in…magic. Magic...is how the world, came about…Must be. Magic….I think, goes against…it goes against time. What the scientists…well what people do now…they find out—try to find out…about the little bitty ways of everything…how it works…in its tiniest….And they, you know…they seem to…put everything in time…More in time. They want it all to be…stretch-out-able! Like a….you know, formula. But it was started by…something…that wasn’t…in time. The keep giving toy…time, time…when what you need is magic—not in time. Poetry is magic…Or else…I mean…the words come from...nowhere, from no time. Like I do…talking to you.
In Notley’s text, then, poetry—as talk— is a way of privileging and participating in magic, in transferring psychical energy. As is the case with Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis and Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat, “talk” allows the speaker and/or text to become a medium upon which to host/channel the presence of voice—the affect of language—and access typically unchartered unconscious/ethereal space. As Denise Riley suggests, “I am a walker in language. It’s only through my meanders and slow detours, perhaps across many decades, toward recognizing language’s powerful impersonality—which is always operating despite and within its air of a communicative ‘intersubjectivity’—that I can ‘become myself.’” She continues, “ Yet I become myself only by way of fully accepting my impersonality, too—as someone who is herself accidentally spoken…by…language…—and who, by means of her own relieved recognition of this very contingency, is in significant part released from the powers of the secretive and unspeakable workings of linguistic harm” (27). By refusing to diminish their nervousness because of shame, these writers produce texts which are as uncontainable and volatile as the Gurlesque body; language refuses to keep quiet and our anxieties run amuck to fuel our curiosity and ongoing corporeal chatter.